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Bush's Space Plan

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Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008; 11:00 AM

Four years after President Bush called for Americans to return to the moon and then voyage to Mars, NASA is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to design, build and test the spacecraft that would make it possible. But some top space exploration advocates, policy experts and scientists, including some who initially supported Bush's space initiatives, are now questioning whether the newly dubbed "Constellation" program can ever achieve its goals at a price taxpayers will accept.

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Washington Post staff writer Marc Kaufman was online Monday, Feb. 4 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the Constellation program.

Read more about this in: Acceptance Slow for Bush's Space Plan (By Marc Kaufman, Feb. 2)

The transcript follows.

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Marc Kaufman: Good morning. We'll be talking today about the Bush Administration's Vision for Space Exploration -- what it entails and what obstacles it might face once there's a new administration in charge. Very briefly, the "Vision" -- which was largely embraced by Congress in 2005 -- calls for development of a new rocket and capsule system by 2014 that can travel to the International Space Station, and one that can go to the moon and beyond by 2020. For primarily financial reasons, NASA's progress on the "Constellation" program is already behind schedule, and no flight to the space station is even proposed before spring of 2016. While some people find NASA programs such as Constellation to be too expensive and low priority compared with Earthly needs, others very strongly believe American power and authority in the world is intimately tied to our space program.

With that, on to the questions...

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Franconia, Va.: Since the Bush administration is largely over, the concern I have is how the major candidates stand on manned space exploration.

Would this particular plan, or any manned space plan (like a replacement for the shuttle, at least), survive under a President McCain, Romney, Obama, or (Hillary) Clinton? I believe I read somewhere that Obama was opposed to spending money on spaceflight, which if true, would be bizarre, given the JFK comparisons -- what can you tell us?

Marc Kaufman: I've been told by many space experts that one of the biggest challenges to the Constellation space program is precisely that it is so tied to the Bush administration. Even if the president was more popular than he is, successors often have no interest in promoting (and funding) ambitious programs started by past presidents.

That said, Sen. Clinton has probably taken the most positive position regarding space exploration -- issuing a detailed paper last year supporting the general goals of the program, while perhaps not the specific destinations. Sen. Obama has taken the least supportive position -- saying that he would put the more ambitious, moon and Mars directed parts of the plan on hold. Sens. Romney and McCain said some supportive things while campaigning in Florida, but they have not suggested at all that it would be a priority. I would say that the wild card is Congress -- where the moon-Mars project won broad, bi-partisan support in 2005.

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Anonymous: In your article, you quoted Louis Friedman, head of the Planetary Society as saying "Some of us have real doubts about whether the money will be available for the Bush plan..." While Bush and many Republicans claim they're fiscal conservatives, they'll find and hand out government money if it'll woo voters or reward supporters (e.g., proposed Stimulus Bill with rebates, multiple Iraq war & Katrina no-bid contracts, $41+ billion/year Medicare Drug Program).

Friedman might have better results getting taxpayer money out of the Bush Administration if he shows a large block of votes are at stake or that political supporters can be rewarded. Otherwise if he attempts to justify the plan based on merit and the national interest, isn't there a long line of worthy programs that Bush cut behind which Friedman and Space Program supporters must stand?

Marc Kaufman: The question is based on the assumption that the Bush administration has generously funded the space program, which really isn't true. The total NASA budget is $17 billion a year -- a month in Iraq, I believe -- and it has increased only incrementally under this administration. Indeed, one of the big problems with the moon-Mars program is that the president did not give NASA much additional money to fund it. And then what was provided was eaten up in increased expenses for the shuttle program.

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Falls Church, Va.: At least with Bush, he provides a plan to target space exploration. Congresses in the late 80s killed all manned space exploration except to complete the space station. We need to explore other universes. Why can't people see that?

Marc Kaufman: This is a key question: Is the public interested enough in both space exploration, space science and -- to some extent -- the military use of space to fund ambitious projects. As a nation, we have a spotty record here, with a huge and largely popular push to get to the moon in the 1960s, a major retrenchment by President Nixon in the 1970s, the plan for a space station in the 1980s, followed by the painfully slow construction of it and two dramatic and deadly space shuttle disasters. NASA Chief Mike Griffin often talks about the fact that a generation of rocket scientists and engineers got lost after Nixon ended the Apollo program, and he is also critical of the entire shuttle effort. He is, however, an energetic proponent of the Constellation plan as the right and necessary way to go, and many in the space exploration community agree.

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Rockville, Md.: My position is that just about anything can be paid for if the tax payers see the reason for doing it. I don't think the current administration (or any other administration) has fully made a rational case for going into space. Many of our "explanations" have never worked with each other. The government needs to do a better job at explaining the space program and why we need to have it.

I believe we have a good reason to explore space and control it near Earth. Our survival may well depend on that capability.

Marc Kaufman: Given the great importance that space already has for the U.S. - commercially and militarily, as well as scientifically and to meet our dreams of exploration -- it would seem that government would indeed be doing more to make the case for it. While the Bush administration gets lots of credit for proposing a pretty sophisticated space exploration program in 2004, it has done remarkably little since then to promote or fund it. Even supporters of the president make this criticism.

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Arlington, Va.: Who are the players behind this attempt to create a new political order for the Nation's space policy?

Marc Kaufman: Some are longtime critics of the moon-Mars program, some are former advocates who have concluded that the project will break the bank, and others are simply space scientists who deeply want space exploration to continue and succeed, and worry that our current plans are off base. I don't know how many are influenced by the politics of the situation -- with Obama against an aggressive push on Constellation and Clinton (and I believe McCain) more sympathetic--but clearly the initiative is to some extent ocurring because there will be a new administration within the year.

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Alexandria, Va.: Given the price tag for manned space exploration and the potential change of priorities of a new administration (whichever party), do you see all of NASA's earth science programs moving to the forefront?

Marc Kaufman: There is good reason to believe that earth science will do better in the NASA budget in the years ahead. With global warming such a pressing issue, it seems that the political and scientific pressure to gather more data will be great, and I bet that future administrations and Congresses will want to respond positively to that pressure.

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Munich, Germany: Settling the Moon may require different technology than deep space missions, but I'd always thought that space missions were intended to eventually settle and inhabit different planets.

I thought that starting with the Moon would be like the Japanese practice of Kaizen, where you take lots of small steps to reach your goal instead of fewer bigs ones.

Marc Kaufman: NASA strongly believes that establishing permanent settlements on the moon is essential to preparing for the daunting challenging of heading to Mars (or other near-Earth asteroids.) They say that crews have to get comfortable with a new generation of technology, that the agency needs to better understand how astronauts respond to long stays in space, and that there remains a lot of good science to undertake on the moon. Critics say the returning to the moon will be a diversion -- a sand trap of sorts that will keep NASA from doing the more far-ranging and exciting exploration that the public wants.

Lurking in the background of this debate is the likelihood that China, India and Russia are all talking about sending manned missions to the moon. As Mike Griffin often says, does the U.S. want the next humans on the moon to be speaking Chinese? I think there are good points to be made on both sides of that debate.

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Detroit, Mich.: We all know that Tom DeLay masterminded Bush's moon plan in order to bring influence to him and jobs to his district; now that he is gone, shouldn't the moon program be gone, too?

Marc Kaufman: I'm sure that powerful members of Congress like DeLay (of Texas, home of the Johnson Space Center) played a role in framing the plan, but it is also supported by many top space experts -- especially those who worked on the accident report following the Columbia disaster. They concluded that space travel in inherently risky and expensive, and that we should do it only if the goal warrants the risk and expense (a tacit vote of less-than-full-confidence in the space shuttle and international space station projects.) The panel did conclude, however, that a moon-Mars project with a new generation of rockets and capsules is generally worth the risk and expense.

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Philadelphia: Why do we need to explore other universes?

Marc Kaufman: Well, I'm not sure we'll ever get to other universes, but we certainly are learning more about other solar systems and other galaxies. But in answer to your question, I think we clearly do not "need" to do it. However, space exploration does excite many young people to enter the sciences, it does result in some advances that become useful on Earth (the GPS system, for instance,) and it has historically been a key component of our nation's international "soft power." When the Soviet Union imploded, the Russians kept their space program going even though it was a huge expense they could barely afford. But it was a matter of great national pride, and NASA has often served the same function here, I believe.

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Falls Church, Va.: What's to stop private companies from getting into the space program... maybe selling add space on the side of their space ship? I'm sure Coca Cola would pay out of the nose to have a huge Coke bottle shaped space ship heading to the moon.

Marc Kaufman: While there are strict rules against commercializing space in the way you suggest, there is a substantial program underway designed to help private companies enter into the rocket business. Two companies won very large contracts to build rockets that could some day help supply the international space station, and some test launches have occured. But rocket science is, indeed, difficult, and the companies have had limited success. In fact, one of the companies had their contract taken away because NASA said they were not meeting contractual goals, but the company has sued to get the contract back.

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RE: Your Response to Anonymous: The question was not "based on the assumption that the Bush administration has generously funded the space program." The point is that Bush will fund programs that get votes for Republicans or reward Republican supporters. The $41+ billion/year Medicare Drug Program is an example of Bush going against conservative economic principals to fund a program Republicans can brag about to elderly voters. Have you any evidence that the Constellation Program can do either? Otherwise, the Space Program will have to stand far behind in the line of worthy program cuts by Bush.

Marc Kaufman: Well, Constellation definitely has given contracts to big defense and aeronautics companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and others, and it is probably most popular in two states that Republicans like to keep happy -- Texas and Florida. But from the start, NASA has done a good job of spreading centers and jobs across the nation, and so many other members of Congress like the program for reasons including jobs back home. (Sen. Barbara Mikulski is a huge proponent of the programl.)

Historically, I don't think that space exploration has been a particularly big vote getter. To me, that makes Sen. Clinton's early embrace of a robust program pretty unusual and noteworthy.

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Reston, Va.: Why hasn't it caught on? Maybe because we have yet another President (in a long series of Presidents) with a 'Fire and Forget' space plan.

Marc Kaufman: The political and budgetary follow-through for Constellation has definitely not matched the initial rollout. I suspect the war in Iraq has played some role in that loss of focus, but maybe moon-Mars never was a particularly high priority for Bush. Nonetheless, contracts have been let and work has begun, and perhaps when rockets are tested and capsules are completed the public will become more involved.

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Alexandria, Va.: Any word on a fix for the vibration issue on launch for Ares/Orion that was reported on recently? It is incredibly stupid to launch a manned vehicle atop a solid rocket booster (because you are going to run into this vibration on a solid), but I guess its too late to change it now. I wonder how much that fix is going to add to the budget.

Marc Kaufman: I don't have a technical answer for that, but top NASA officials -- including Mike Griffin and former explorations division chief "Doc" Horowitz -- say it is not a major problem and that it can be resolved.

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Woodbridge, Va.: The problem with NASA is they have no clue how to sell tickets. In this age, marketing is everything. If you expect Americans to get on board with space exploration then why don't you make it look cooler? The space shuttles are outdated (technology wise and design wise, EX: foam), the space station looks like an erector set, and the NASA logo and public profile says, "we're run by old guys from the JFK age." The exploration satellites look like something I could build using various items from a junks yard and some duct tape. If NASA expects to sell tickets to a lunar colony and a trip to MARS, then they need to join the rest of us in the new millennium. Do you agree or no?

Marc Kaufman: I understand what you say, but I probably disagree. I've been covering NASA and space exploration for only a short time, and before I took the beat I had not really given the subject too much thought. But now that I cover it, I have to say I find much of the science and technology to be fascinating. I personally don't think NASA's problem is marketting -- they already have a website that regularly puts out very interesting stuff. I think the issue is more funding, and that the agency could and would do much more if it had the funds. I know that can be said of most agencies or enterprises, but I don't think most people understand that the NASA budget is $17 billion in a $3 trillion federal budget.

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Bethesda, Md.: You mean he actually HAS a plan for space? Hasn't he ruined the earth enough that he has to ruin space, too?

Marc Kaufman: A clearly cheeky question, but one that speaks to a real problem facing Constellation: Will it be seen as a "legacy" project for George W. Bush, and if so does the public want to continue with something that will give him that kind of credit? Space experts say that the U.S. desperately needs a program that will transcend both politics and personalities, and so they hope the program continues. But it is often said that Richard Nixon killed the Apollo program as quickly as he could because it was championed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

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Arlington, Va.: I think one of the biggest reasons we went to the moon in the first place is because we had competition with an unfriendly nation (i.e., the Soviet Union in the '60s) over who would be the "first" to do whatever. The Soviet Union was the first into space with the launch of Sputnik, which prompted the space race. Now, since the Cold War is long since over and our national ego isn't at stake, we're not quite as motivated as before to go into space.

Marc Kaufman: That's correct in terms of public perception, but not necessarily as correct in terms of what's at stake. As mentioned earlier, China, India, Russia and perhaps others have plans to visit the moon in the decades ahead, and China in particular is moving ahead quite quickly. NASA Administrator Griffin often says that Americans will be quite unsettled when (or if) the Chinese land on the moon before we return, especially if the U.S. does not at that time have the capacity to fly there. Many military and national security analysts believe that space is as important now to nations as the oceans were when Spain or England were global powers, or when the U.S. began to dominate the air during WW II. On the other hand, many yearn for a day when nations will cooperate rather than eternally compete, and see space as a venue for a possible change of that nature.

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Reston, Va.: Why is the new Moon rocket basically a copy of the old Apollo moon rocket? What happened to NASA as a pioneering organization developing new technology? Does anyone want to go to Mars in an Apollo capsule?

Marc Kaufman: The capsule, called Orion, is different from Apollo in some important ways. It has, for instance, an abort/escape system that could save lives during a launch gone wrong. It is also larger than Apollo and will carry a larger crew.

The rocket that will send Orion into space is the Ares, which uses some technology from the space shuttle, some from the Atlas rocket that sent Apollo into space, and some that is brand new. When Congress authorized money to begin the program, it specificially said that technologies from previous spacecraft should be used if possible as a way to keep costs down.

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Marc Kaufman: Many thanks for all your questions. Hopefully we can talk about all this again when space exploration is back in the news.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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